Just do women’s empowerment

Naomi Hossain

You’ve got to love War on Want for soiling the wholesome purity of the Olympics brand with a study documenting the exploitation of Bangladeshi garments workers stitching 2012 Olympics sponsor brands Adidas Nike and Puma products for as little as 72p a day. And before you even think it, no, 72p is not a lot of money, even in Bangladesh, not these days. You can get a meal, but it won’t be a good one; pay for a room where you can shift-share a bed with another worker; with any luck and a lot of overtime you might be able to pay for the healthcare you will need when you get ill or worn out from the routine of 10-12 hour days of manual work. There are no doubt Bangladeshis who are worse off than these garments workers, but the study findings suggest they are still paid less than the minimum wages they have struggled so hard to secure.

War on Want missed out two very interesting facts in their study of the exploitation of Bangladeshi garments workers by Adidas, Nike and Puma. First, while the same old sweatshop problems remain, those women workers have changed dramatically in the last ten years: they have a lot more collective and political power than before as a result of several years of direct, often violent, action and organisation; the helpless victims seeking UK NGO help depicted in the Observer article that covered the report are a figment of a particular kind of European imagination. (The report itself is far more respectful of the workers’ capacities for organisation and their own struggles for a rise in the minimum wage). While the exploitation remains a serious concern, we must not forget that these are a group of women whose power to articulate their own demands has grown, and grown in large part because of their work in these factories. My new Working Paper makes this point in detail.

The second missing fact is altogether more interesting. This is that the UK taxpayer not only buys the clothes that these workers make, but in the case of Nike, it also then funds their corporate social responsibility activities through funding to the Nike Foundation. Nike, whose outsourced women workers complain of long hours, illegal and unpaid overtime, abuse and general ill treatment, appears to be the self-same Nike whose Foundation promotes The Girl Effect – an effort to get girls in the developing world empowered through – well the website doesn’t make it entirely clear how they are going to get empowered but it involves some very nifty graphics. I can’t find a detailed budget breakdown, but the UK Department for International Development (DFID) budget suggests that £12,939,129 is going to the ‘DFID Nike Foundation Girl Effect Hub’. You could empower a hell of a lot of Bangladesh garments workers with that much money.

If anyone knows, can they please explain to me why the UK taxpayer is paying the Nike Foundation to empower women when its mother company Nike squeezes its suppliers so hard they pay those same women rock-bottom wages? Or is it all an incredibly cunning plan to empower women by treating them so badly that they are forced to fight for their rights … ? After all, impossible is nothing.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the IDS Power, Participation and Social Change Team.


4 Responses to Just do women’s empowerment

  1. John Hilary says:

    Dear Naomi

    Thanks very much for highlighting War on Want’s new Olympics report on the conditions facing women garment workers in Bangladesh. You are completely right to stress the degree to which women have used the experience of labour organising in the garment industry to build political power in recent years. We made the point more forcefully in our 2011 report Stitched Up, which highlighted the achievements of our partner, the National Garment Workers’ Federation (NGWF), in building not just women’s participation but also women’s leadership in the struggle for better terms and conditions; the report is online here: http://www.waronwant.org/stitchedup.

    We aim to strike a balance between recognising the long-term benefits of women’s empowerment and the immediate challenges of proletarianisation – emancipation vs exploitation, in a word. When I visited Dhaka the year before last, I was told of the social developments that have come from mass employment of women in the garments industry – including the breaking of taboos on public interaction of men and women which would have been unthinkable for the first generation of garment workers. Your background paper for WDR 2012 looks most interesting in this regard, and I look forward to reading it properly.

    Do come along to our full day’s conference on 24 March, ‘Blood, Sweat & Gear’, at which two representatives of the NGWF will be speaking (details here: http://tinyurl.com/7fr7p7k). It will be a good opportunity for you to bring up your other intriguing point about DFID giving taxpayers’ money to Nike’s CSR venture – please do keep us informed on anything else you find out there.

    John Hilary
    Executive Director
    War on Want

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: